Round-The-Clock: Keeping Big Ben ticking
Huw Smith was closely involved with Big Ben's restoration work.
As years of restoration work on Big Ben come to a close, one of Parliament’s clock keepers explains what makes him tick.
It is one of the most enduring symbols of British political life, but no one knows the inner workings of Big Ben like the team of horologists whose job it is to keep the country on time.
Huw Smith is one of three experts tasked with keeping the legendary timepiece in working order, along with the thousands of other clocks around the parliamentary estate, meaning their job spans from complex repairs on historical pieces to changing the batteries in the more modern models.
It has been his role for 15 years, but it was not a job he had expected to find himself in. With a varied career, including time as a pub landlord and a lorry driver, Smith decided to retrain by taking a horology course after a spinal injury left him out of work. A few years later, he found himself working on the most famous timepiece in the world.
“It must be one of the most pampered tower clocks in the country,” he jokes. “If you think of a tower clock on a church, you’ll have someone who will go up there once a week to wind it, spray a bit of oil and that’s it. But we are up there three times a week. The tours go up there three times a day, and even the tour guides will know if something’s different from normal and let us know.”
Completed in 1859, the clock is a feat of engineering brilliance, with complex gravity escapement mechanism producing remarkable accuracy that became the gold standard for other tower clocks.
“It went from keeping in time to within five minutes a week, to within two seconds,” Smith explains. “That’s like going from the Wright Brothers to the space shuttle.”
Keeping the clock accurate to such fine margins does require adjustments by those who take care of it, with weights added and removed as needed to make tiny changes, and it’s a surprise to most that this can include the use of old one penny pieces.
Smith’s own theory is that one of his predecessors made it up the 300-odd steps to make the adjustment before realising they’d forgotten their equipment and reached into their pocket for a penny to substitute for the usual weights – little realising they were starting a custom that would endure for decades.
There is, of course, a complex equation – 2x π and the square root of this and that – to explain the impact something as small as a penny will have on the tonnes of machinery that make up the mechanism, but Smith thankfully provides a simpler explanation.
“We have a little shelf above the pendulum where we put the weights on and off. If you add a penny, it will speed it up by two-fifths of a second over 24 hours. If you take a penny away, it will slow it down by two-fifths of a second over 24 hours.”
I suggest to Smith that the weights are now precision-milled and put through a rigorous scientific weighing process to ensure each penny is identical, but he’s quick to stop me.
“No, no, we still [use] a supply of old pennies. If [the adjustment] is not quite half a second, you look for a slightly thinner old penny, or a slightly thicker old penny if you need more.
“We get given them by the public – it’s their contribution and they know it’s their old pennies that are making the [difference].”
While many political devotees will associate the ticking clock with those exhilarating few seconds before an exit poll is revealed, the rest of the country knows it best as the symbol of another year gone, and I wonder how Smith feels when he sees his work up on screen as he brings in the new year.
As it happens, while we are all looking at Big Ben on TV, Smith is at work, looking back at us from the inside.
“We are up there all New Year’s Eve. We are normally [not] out of there [until] one or two o’clock.”
It’s part of a rigorous operation to ensure our celebrations go precisely to time, with the firework displays set to trigger at the exact moment the first hammer strikes 12. Each year, the belfry is kitted out with a specialist sound system that transmits the chimes to speakers at the speed of sound, as even the slightest delay could produce an echo.
As Smith explains, the time delay for the bongs to reach even a landmark as close as Trafalgar Square is around two seconds. The team, which must return by 6am to remove the equipment, nobly deny themselves a glass of fizz to celebrate a job well done.
Even after all this time, Smith is still amazed by the number of people eager to capture their own memories of the famous timepiece.
“Even if I’m up there at two o’clock in the morning and look out to Westminster Bridge there’ll be a flash. No matter the time, day or night, someone seems to be taking a photograph of Big Ben.
“I’ve always chuckled to myself when I come out of Carriage Gates and see someone taking a photograph [while] I’m in the background – they don’t realise they’re taking a picture of the clock [keeper] as well.”
Smith and the team were key to the recent major refurbishment work carried out on the clock, and spent six days a week during that period working alongside the Cumbria Clock Company staff who carried out the repairs.
“It was a hard two years, but really enjoyable. I loved every minute of it, because we were doing something that was part of history,” he adds.
The end of that work – while bittersweet for those involved – has allowed the welcome return of a national treasure that seems likely to retain its place as Britain’s most photographed building for generations to come.
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